History

A Room on Broome

The beginnings of Saint Thomas Church were humble, a far cry from the vaulted roof, glorious stained glass, and towering reredos that now so impress worshipers and visitors alike. The first service of the congregation that would become Saint Thomas parish took place in a simple room at the corner of Broome Street and Broadway. It was heralded by an advertisement in the New York Evening Post of October 11, 1823, that read as follows:

Notice.—The large room (late Reading Room) on the corner of Broadway and Broome Street, has been engaged for the purpose of divine worship according to the rites of the Protestant Episcopal Church. The first service will take place on Sunday evening next, 12th inst. at half past 7 o’clock; after which, the regular services will be held on Sunday mornings, at half past 10; and on Sunday and Thursday evenings, at half past 7 o’clock.

A small group of laymen, drawn from the parishioners of Trinity Church, Grace Church and St. George’s, sponsored this development. Their reason was obvious and practical: the city was creeping slowly north of Canal Street. With the exception of two churches, St. Luke’s on Hudson Street and Calvary Church, no new parish had been created for several years. The existing parishes were all near City Hall, and in the long stretch from St. Paul’s Chapel to the village of Bloomingdale there was not a single Episcopal Church.

And there may have been other reasons. In the early part of the nineteenth century in New York, parishes were at times created to make a field for the display of the talents of a brilliant minister, or to extend the influence of an ecclesiastical party.

In 1823, under the aggressive leadership of Bishop Hobart, the High Church movement was the dominant influence, though a few strong Evangelicals, entrenched in well-to-do city parishes, were managing to fight a good defensive action. There is every reason to believe that Cornelius Duffie, who had grown up at the feet of Hobart in Trinity Parish, was what was known in those days as a “Hobart Churchman.” It may well be, therefore, that among the motives which led to the organization of Saint Thomas was not only the desire to find a place for Mr. Duffie, but also the intention to extend the influence of the Hobart school in the upper part of the growing city. It is certainly true that down to the end of the rectorship of John Wesley Brown, at the close of the century, the clergy of Saint Thomas were doctrinal High Churchman.

At a meeting of the vestry held at the house of Isaac Lawrence on February 17, 1824, it was unanimously resolved “that the Reverend Cornelius R. Duffie be hereby called to be Rector of St. Thomas Church, and that the presiding Warden and the Secretary be a Committee to inform him of this Resolution, and to acquaint him with the present situation and future prospects of the congregation.”

The acceptance came a week later, by a letter date February 24, 1824. Duffie, accompanying his own letter, took the chair and presided over his first vestry meeting. At this point, Duffie was an ordained Deacon but not yet an ordained priest.

Through early 1826, the parish continued to worship in the Broome Street room, but by 1824 it had already been determined to build a permanent church.

First Rector, 1823-1827

Born in New York City on March 31, 1789, Cornelius Roosevelt Duffie became the first rector of the new parish at age thirty-five. He was educated at the Episcopal Academy in Cheshire, Connecticut and at Columbia College. After graduating in 1809, he began the study of law, but the death of his father forced him to give this up to enter his family’s mercantile business. He succeeded until economic reverses in the city’s mercantile community forced him to abandon it. During the years from 1810 to 1818, which included the War of 1812, he also served as ensign and later captain in the New York State Militia. On April 16, 1816, at the age of 27, he married 19-year-old Helena Bache Bleecker, of a family already significant in New York history. In 1821, about two months after her early death on August 17 of that year, Duffie wrote to Bishop Hobart: A few years of practical acquaintance with the world [has shown] me that fortune and the fairest prospects were often vain and deceptive, and that even success and prosperity were less to be desired than feared, for their tendency to make men forgetful of themselves.

Duffie had grown up Baptist, but like so many of his generation he revolted against the Calivinist teaching to which the Baptists of the day were generally committed. His first movement toward Anglicanism, like those of some other converts, can be traced to a funeral he attended in an Episcopal Church. He was so impressed with the service that he bought a copy of the Book of Common Prayer, studied it carefully, and then sought the advice of his college classmate, Benjamin T. Onderdonk. The result was that, at the age of 26, he was baptized by this friend and advisor. He became a pew-holder in St. John’s Chapel, coming into intimate contact with Bishop Hobart, who lived next door to the chapel and who later confirmed him in Trinity Church. Such was the confidence in Duffie’s character and judgment that he was elected a member of the Trinity vestry in 1817 and served until 1822. During this period he also became a member of the New York Protestant Episcopal Tract Society, and early and zealous promoter of Sunday schools in the city, as well as an active founder of the Missionary Society.

It was in these days that his thoughts turned toward the ordained ministry of the Church, and after serious deliberation he determined at the ripe age of 34 to study for holy orders and to read theology under the direction of Bishop Hobart and Dr. Onderdonk. On August 6, 1823, he was ordained deacon by Bishop Hobart in Trinity Church. Three months later he took charge of the services in the Broome Street room. On October 11, 1824, he was ordained priest in St. Luke’s Church by Bishop John Croes of New Jersey, acting for Bishop Hobart who was then in Europe. In between, in February 1824, he accepted the call to be the first rector of Saint Thomas Church.

Under his quiet sway, the infant parish grew. The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was administered for the first time on Sunday, March 14, 1824, by the Rev. Dr. William Berrian, an assisting minister of Trinity Church, assisted by Mr. Duffie, who was then in deacon’s orders. There were nineteen communicants at the service. On Sunday, November 28, Duffie was at last an ordained priest and celebrated the Eucharist for the first time.

The records of early baptisms, marriages and burials give some indication of the growth of the church. Mr Duffie’s first baptism, on August 10, 1823 at St. Paul’s Chapel, was that of Eliza Crolins Simmons. The first to be baptized in Broome Street were William Brown, Caroline Brown, and Sidney Francis Cowell. Later, on one Sunday alone, Duffie baptized twenty persons.

His first marriage was that of Elisha Broomer to Frances, daughter of John Moor, on August 15, 1824. His first burial was that of his eldest son, Charles William Duffie, who died on June 24, 1824.

In a ministry of just one month short of four years, the first rector of Saint Thomas baptized 102 people, buried 58, and officiated at 27 marriages. His first Confirmation class numbered 26 persons.

On Sunday morning, August 2, 1827, Mr. Duffie preached what would turn out to be his last sermon, on the text from Hebrews 13:14, Here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come. It closed with the following words:

God grant us grace that we may all so live, that we may not fear to die; so fix our treasures and our hearts in heaven, that we may hold lightly the things of earth; so confide in him who is the way, the truth and the life, and so be found in him, that when we pass from this perishing scene, we may be partakers of the kingdom prepared for the righteous from the foundations of the world!

A similar note runs through the last sermon he wrote, which he never delivered, on the text from Numbers 23:10, Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.

These were foreboding words. Never a robust person, Mr Duffie was seized by typhoid fever, and on Monday, August 20, 1827, he died. The following evening, in the presence of a large congregation, he was laid to rest beneath the chancel of the church he had built, beside the bodies of his wife and young son, both of whom had predeceased him. There they would remain until the church was sold in 1865-66, when they were moved to Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, a wrong which was righted in 2010 by Fr Andrew Mead, twelfth rector.

Bishop Hobart reportedly burst into tears at the news of Mr. Duffie’s death.

The First Saint Thomas Church Building

At the first meeting of the vestry, held January 14, 1824, it was unanimously resolved “that it is expedient for this Corporation to make immediate arrangements for building a church.” But where was the money to come from? Trinity Church, with its large endowment and munificent spirit, was looked upon as a sort of fairy godmother for all new beginnings of the Episcopal Church in the state of New York. Time after time, Trinity had responded to the multitudinous appeals that came to it, but this time it felt unable to help.

Nevertheless, the effort went forward. A committee of the vestry was charged with the vital tasks of reporting on “an eligible site for a church on Broadway or elsewhere,” and, after ascertaining the cost of the land, on reporting on a suitable plan for the building and the probable cost of the same. In addition, the committee—consisting of chairman David Hadden, Richard Oakley and John Lambert—was to devise the best means of obtaining the money and to make regulations for the sale of pews. It was a tall order.

The committee had shied away from building on Broadway itself, partly because the lots would be more expensive, but even more because “Broadway, being the great thoroughfare of the city, would consequently be very noisy—the congregation would thereby be disturbed in their devotions.” However, the vestry did not concur with the committee’s recommendation.

The following week, on February 24, the vestry decided to locate the proposed church on the northwest corner of Broadway and Houston Street. The site comprised three lots on Broadway and, to the rear, two lots on Houston Street. It was just one block north and a few blocks west of the spot where the first St. Patrick’s Cathedral, at Prince and Mott Streets, had been dedicated in the year 1815. These lots, which were each twenty-five feet wide and one hundred feet deep, were purchased in March for $11,000 and immediately mortgaged to the seller for their full price. An additional lot was leased in April, which gave access to Mercer Street.

The site thus secured, it was now necessary to raise money to build the church. The vestry determined to seek donations “from such persons who may feel an interest in our undertaking,” and the wardens and vestrymen were requested to head the list. The hope was that these donations might amount to $5,000. But the vestry was too optimistic. When the final accounting had been made, it was found that these gifts amounted to only $625.

Then someone in the vestry had a bright idea. There was considerable open ground surrounding the projected church, and it was decided to utilize this for family burial plots, each nine by eleven, and to offer them for sale at $225 each. As an immediate source of revenue, the plan had a measure of success. In three years, families of Saint Thomas purchased some eighteen plots, bringing in a capital sum of $2700. The number eventually doubled to reach thirty-six plots.

The vestry now turned to serious thought on a suitable plan for a building. At a meeting held on April 6, 1824, the vestry resolved “that the order of the proposed Church be Gothic and that plans of a church of sixty-two by ninety feet, or thereabouts be procured from artists, with estimates of the expense.” This was an unprecedented step and a departure from the prevailing type of ecclesiastical architecture in New York and, indeed, in most of the Episcopal Church. In the city, Trinity, Christ Church, St. Michael’s and St James’ were plain wooden structures, while St. Paul’s Chapel and St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery were reminiscent of Christopher Wren.

The plan eventually adopted for Saint Thomas has sometimes been ascribed to the Rev. Dr. John McVickar, a professor of political economy in Columbia College and a Gothic enthusiast of the day. The inscription on the cornerstone of the new church indeed bore such testimony. It is more likely, however, that Dr. McVickar acted as a consultant on the design of the building, as the minutes of the vestry clearly indicate that the architect was Josiah R. Brady.

In any case, the plan submitted by Mr. Brady was to prove unprecedented, at least in the city. It called for a church to built of stone, in the Gothic style, roughly according to the measurements approved by the vestry, and with two towers, projecting twelve feet from the front of the building. The choice of Gothic, which in its very structure pointed beyond and upward, would effortlessly and inevitably orient the congregation of Saint Thomas toward a primary emphasis on worship that would be visibly written into the very fabric of its first permanent building. When completed, Saint Thomas would help to establish Gothic as the favored ecclesiastical form in the city.

A building committee, formally appointed on May 31, 1824, reported that the church as planned could be erected for $20,000 and that the subscriptions in hand would meet the payments to the builder until the church was enclosed. An additional loan of $9,000 having been obtained, the vestry authorized the committee to proceed with the building. The cornerstone was laid at a ceremony on Tuesday afternoon, July 27, 1824, the same day as the commencement exercises of the General Theological Seminary. In the absence of Bishop Hobart, who was in England, the venerable William White of Pennsylvania, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, conducted the service.

As the work of the building progressed, certain modifications were made in the plans, the most notable being the lengthening of the church by some thirteen feet and the addition of a three-story brick rectory to be built in a “neat but plain manner.” When all was said and done, the total cost of the land and building proved to be about $50,000.

On Sunday morning, February 10, 1826, the congregation gathered for the last time in the room on Broome Street. Taking his text from 1 Samuel 7:12, “hitherto hath the Lord helped us,” Mr. Duffie depicted the “weak and feeble beginning” of the congregation in 1823. He reminded them how they had laid the foundation of a stately temple for the worship of God, but warned them wisely that however noble the temple might be, unless it were visited by the presence of God it could not be “compared with the humblest abode where the footsteps of his goodness and mercy had been manifested.”

On Thursday morning, February 23, 1826, the first Saint Thomas Church building was consecrated by Bishop Hobart, who went on to describe the Book of Common Prayer as “not only the best manual for rational, sober and fervent devotion, but a most powerful guardian of the distinguishing and fundamental doctrines of salvation, through the merits and grace of the divine mediator.” Knowing the mettle of Cornelius Roosevelt Duffie, he concluded, “We hope, we are confident, that the Word of God will here be proclaimed with fidelity, the worship devoutly performed, and His ministrations and ordinances duly celebrated by him who has given such full confidence that he knows his high duties, and that through God’s grace, he will perform them.”

The choice of location, which had been such a matter of concern, was soon proving to have been sound strategy. By the time the church was complete, many of the rural lanes surrounding it had become residential streets, inhabited by the kind of potential worshipers to whom Saint Thomas was especially attractive. The congregation was steadily increasing. For almost the only time in its long history, Saint Thomas was a neighborhood church, where the rector could live in the midst of his people, making his parish calls on foot, building up a Christian community. For this work, for the particular kind of pastoral work, Mr Duffie was eminently fitted. An acceptable preacher by the standards of his day, he was primarily neither preacher nor administrator, but pastor.

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All of the on-screen text in this section of the website is taken from Canon J. Robert Wright's Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue (2001). All of the text is his, although sentences and paragraphs have been re-ordered as needed.